Whipple’s Disease

About Whipple’s Disease

Whipple’s disease is a malabsorption disease. It interferes with the body’s ability to absorb certain nutrients. The disease causes weight loss, irregular breakdown of carbohydrates and fats, resistance to insulin, and malfunctions of the immune system. When recognized and treated, Whipple’s disease can be cured. Untreated, the disease is usually fatal.

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Causes

Whipple’s disease is caused by bacteria. It can affect any system of the body, but occurs most often in the small intestine. The disease causes lesions on the wall of the small intestine and thickening of the tissue. The villi–tiny, finger-like protrusions from the wall that help absorb nutrients–are destroyed.

Symptoms

Symptoms include diarrhea, intestinal bleeding, abdominal bloating and cramps, loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, and weakness. Arthritis and fever often occur several years before intestinal symptoms develop. Diagnosis is based on symptoms and results of a biopsy of tissue from the small intestine.

Treatment

Whipple’s disease is treated with antibiotics to destroy the bacteria that cause the disease. The physician may use a number of different types, doses, and schedules of antibiotics to find the best treatment. Depending on the seriousness of the disease, treatment may also include fluid and electrolyte replacement. Electrolytes are salts and other substances in body fluid that the heart and brain need to function properly.

Extra iron, folate, vitamin D, calcium and magnesium may also be given to help compensate for the vitamins and minerals the body is not absorbing on its own.

Symptoms usually disappear after 1 to 3 months of treatment. Because relapse is common even after successful treatment, the health care team may continue to observe patients for some time.